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Albany Restaurant Week Gets Weird

April 19, 2012

Do you hear that sound? It’s me banging my head against the wall. I think I’ve said before that Restaurant Week is broken. But this Spring’s version takes the cake.

Here’s the rundown. There are seventeen restaurants participating. Of those, five are fine dining. Six of the remaining twelve I would consider to be actual restaurants (and even those include The Albany Pump Station and The Merry Monk which some might fairly call taverns). But over a third of the field is taverns.

Now there is nothing wrong with taverns. I love them. I think they are one of the things that make the Capital Region special. But when price is held constant, as it is in restaurant week, is a three-course tavern menu really going to draw people downtown? And why would one go to places like Katrinella’s or The Merry Monk, which are beloved for their everyday reasonable prices, during this limited time promotion?

However, this is just par for the course. It’s quite similar to the criticism I’ve levied in the past. But the Downtown Albany BID needs to get a handle on things, because there are a few new twists that have clearly gone too far.

Legend’s on Pearl is straying from the pack.

Instead of offering three courses for $20.12 they are trying to undercut everyone else by offering a choice of one appetizer and two entrees for $15.12. Okay, sure that’s a great deal. But what exactly does it have to do with restaurant week?

Speaking of undercutting the competition, three restaurants are offering their three-course restaurant week menu at an even lower price for students on Monday. That would be $15.12 with the restaurant most likely unable to make up their check total in wine or beer sales. I can kind of understand why V&R Italian Ristorante and La Serre might take part in this, but I’m surprised to see Jack’s Oyster House willing to further undercut the value of their food even just for one night.

Perhaps the logic of courting students is that if a restaurant can curry favor with them now, they can capture a larger share of pricey graduation dinners or meals with parents in the future. It seems like a long shot to me.

But back to wine and beer for just a minute. Marché is doing something unusual. In lieu of one of their appetizers you can choose instead one of two beers or a glass of merlot.  And for dessert, nestled among the homemade sweets are options of port or a “hot nutty Irishman coffee.”

An Irish Coffee is a traditional cocktail from back in the days when racial slurs and innuendos were charming and somehow worked their way into our more sensitive modern lexicon. Now, nobody thinks twice about Scotch tape or a paddy wagon. But a “Hot nutty Irishman?” Please. Just stop. Forget cultural sensitivity for a moment. It’s both an insult to coffee and to cocktails. Really.

The appetizer glass of beer is interesting. I can only imagine the dinner conversation.

“How’s your salad, darling?”
“Delightful, thank you, and your beer?”
“It’s good, but I’m really hungry.”

And this is at one of the “better” restaurants that someone actually interested in food might consider visiting. The five big restaurants that are playing this round are Taste, Marché, Jack’s Oyster House, Café Capriccio, and The Brown Derby. Some might argue for La Serre and maybe ten years ago they might have had a point.

The Marché menu is disjointed at best, and I can’t find my way to a good meal there. Jack’s offers you the chance to try Chef Larry’s Chicken Neopolitan, but locks you into a salad and bread pudding. Sorry, Jack’s, but I like to have at least one alternative choice (and I am no fan of salad). The Brown Derby seems to have gone off a cliff with two of their four appetizers built upon potato chips. Desserts there as usual come entirely from the insanely overrated Villa Italia. Café Capriccio is phoning it in with the same damn appetizers they have every restaurant week, all of them cold. Still, eating the out-of-season tomatoes and mozzarella is a small price to pay for ordering one their enticing main dishes. Capriccio’s wood-fired oven-roasted porchetta or their famous eggplant with four cheeses are promising.

Taste seems to be the only restaurant that recognizes that despite being early spring, we are still in late winter. Their crab salad, followed by a crispy red snapper and an unusual Guinness crème brûlée with Baileys whipped cream, sounds like a steal for the price.

La Serre doesn’t seem to know if it’s French or Italian.

V&R on the other hand, knows precisely that it’s all Italian all the time. And while it may be a little bit pricier than I’d like the rest of the year, Restaurant Week could be a great excuse to give this place a try. Especially with standard-bearer classics like Eggplant Rollatini to start, and entrées like Linguini with Red or White Clam Sauce, Calamari Marinara, Calamari Fra Diavolo, and Chicken Parmesan, it would be hard to choose. If their Tiramisu and Cannoli weren’t good, I’d never have to come back, but at least I could say I tried.

So this season we’re down to just two Fussy Approved options: Taste and V&R.

If I ran the Downtown Albany BID I would remake restaurant week from the ground up. It would focus on our best restaurants, which should include dp, Yono’s and Prime. Prices might have to go up, and that’s okay. Because quality would too. All menus would require choices per course, and need to be approved by the BID. And to make it all special, this would happen just one time per year.

There can be a more casual version of restaurant week for the taverns and beer halls. But the BID should be putting the city’s best foot forward. And while it’s nice to have a long list of participating establishments, the participating establishments aren’t all that nice.

Sorry. But it’s true. Let’s highlight Albany’s best.

Hey, speaking of The Best, the polls at the Times Union close at noon on Friday. If you’ve been holding out on voting for the FUSSYlittleBALLOT 3.0 the time is now. Don’t forget, the ultimate plan is to improve the Capital Region and you can help. If you’ve already voted, send an email to all your friends and family asking for their support. Together we can make this happen.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Chrystal permalink
    April 19, 2012 10:34 am

    I went to Taste last time for Restaurant Week and it was totally worth it. They seem to understand that people still want quality food and interesting choices. I had a panna cotta for dessert that came with pistachio butter that I still think about.

  2. Beck permalink
    April 19, 2012 11:50 am

    I made reservations for Taste for next week. I agree that very few of the menus were even the slightest bit interesting, but, as mentioned, the lump crab appetizer and crispy red snapper sound promising. I haven’t been to Taste yet, and this does seem like a good way to try out their food; I’d certainly be back to pay normal prices if I enjoy it.

  3. Jessica R permalink
    April 19, 2012 12:43 pm

    Troy BID just met to discuss the idea of a Troy Restaurant Week. Not surprisingly, many of the restaurants weren’t jumping on board right away. Now they are looking at a tiered Restaurant Week with 2 or 3 price points ($15, $25, $35, for example). I think this could be a great model, and would probably get places like Yono’s and Prime on board in Albany, which at the same time making Tavern food at $15 sound like a good deal.

  4. Kerosena permalink
    April 19, 2012 1:35 pm

    It seems like the Fussy definition of What Makes a Restaurant is fluid. I re-read your “What Makes a Restaurant” post. I’m confused as to why AGB *is* a restaurant and some of the choices on this list are *not* restaurants.

    • -R. permalink
      April 19, 2012 1:41 pm

      Uh-oh. Here we go again… ;-))

    • April 19, 2012 2:01 pm

      No, no, no. I am glad to have the chance to set things straight. It’s not that taverns aren’t restaurants. It’s that they aren’t Restaurants. AGB isn’t a Restaurant either. But the Best New Restaurant category should be all encompassing and not just for capital-R Restaurants.

      Does that help to clarify my position? Because I’ll happily elaborate in a much longer post if necessary.

  5. derryX permalink
    April 19, 2012 2:39 pm

    The V&R menu looks completely uninspired and uninteresting. You can get that stuff at any Italian Restaurant. Some of the menus that didn’t get the Fussy Approval, while not offering things that seem interesting for all courses, actually look like they could be very special. For example, the mains at Kelsey’s Pub and Cafe Cappricio show much promise, and seem like they’d be a much better deal than dishes that went out of style in the 1980s. Not that I don’t enjoy that stuff, but when I’m looking for a special dining experience, I’d like to see more creativity.

  6. April 19, 2012 7:13 pm

    You know how I feel about Restaurant Week. :) Having said that, I have had dinner at Taste when it’s doing some sort of Restaruant Week-eqsue prix fixe promotion, and they’re one of the few places I’ve seen really do it Right.

  7. April 20, 2012 11:27 am

    I was really disappointed, coming from Providence where restaurant week had dozens of wonderful choices to find the handful of same-old here in Albany. That said – which one would you all recommend?

  8. April 20, 2012 11:28 am

    I was really disappointed coming from Providence, where restaurant week was 2 weeks long and had dozens of inspired choices to find the handful of so/so places here in Albany. That said – I want to try somewhere I haven’t been and am hoping you all might recommened a good choice to me!

  9. Uncle Laurie permalink
    April 26, 2012 1:47 pm

    I went to Kelsey’s last night for Restaurant week and waited an hour and got nothing-no appetizers, no entrees, not even a roll, no service from a waiter, only sodas from a hostess. The wallpaper was coming off, and the chair rail was dusty. It wasn’t that busy, and after an hour the waiter (Barback?, busboy?) finally stopped at the table to apologize. Too late – I left and will tell everyone at the local college I work at to never ever go there.
    Went to The Merry Monk and had a nice meal, great service and tipped well!

  10. Jessica R permalink
    April 26, 2012 5:02 pm

    I went to the Brown Derby with Scott and Emily from CapitalRegionDiningBlog. We had a great meal. I would recommend the Black and Blue nachos (the meat was sooo tender!) or the wedge salad for the appetizer, and the steak for the entree (it was at least 12 oz – no skimping for Restaurant Week!). The dessert was a Lobster Tail pastry. Of course I would have liked more options (or at least to choose from 2-3 pastries [Cannoli!]), but it was tasty too.

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